Education campaign yields rich dividends

In the last 60 years, 83.12 crore Indians have learnt to read.

January 26, 2015 08:02 am | Updated January 28, 2015 05:28 pm IST

In 1951, a few months after India became a republic, only 18.33 per cent of its 35.11 crore citizens could read. According to the 2011 census, 74.04 per cent of its 121.02 crore people can read. In 60 years, 83.12 crore Indians learnt to read.

School enrolment is at an all-time high with several surveys putting primary enrolment at above 96 per cent. However, India is still below the world's average literacy rate by around 10 per cent. India's state expenditure on education is only 3.17 per cent of its gross domestic product, below the world's average of 4.3 per cent. National Sample Survey Organisation (NSSO) 2013 data shows that the average Indian household spends 6.9 per cent of their budget on education.

National Literacy Mission

The Union Government has steered several schemes that have contributed to the spread of education. One of the most prominent programmes has been the National Literacy Mission, which was started in 1988. The mission has three schemes of Total Literacy, Post Literacy and Continuing Education targeting the 15 to 35 age group. In 1997, it set a target to take literacy to 75 per cent by 2007--which was missed. The Mission focuses on adult literacy and vocational training by involving NGOs and local governments.

Another important scheme is the Sarva Shiksha Abhiyan (SSA), launched in 2001 for providing access to education to all children aged six to 14. This scheme allowed states to hire temporary or 'para teachers' who are paid an honorarium to teach children in their area. The campaign however, was criticised for creating two different categories of teachers--regular and honorary.

After the economic reforms of 1991, this was fiscally the biggest social sector spend with Rs. 17,000 crores being made available for the scheme from 2002 to 2007 through a two per cent cess on all taxes.

This was later hiked to three per cent. Since the introduction of the scheme, the number of primary schools has increased from 6.4 lakhs to 8.6 lakhs. Primary school enrolment also increased from 11.38 crores to 13.24 crores since 2001.

During the same period, States and Municipalities-- starting with Indore in 1999-- began to merge or shut down government schools as students shifted to private schools. Last year, 17,000 schools ceased to exist in Rajasthan alone. First and second generation learners now seek English medium education, which private schools offer.

Right to Education Act

The Right to Education Act, an enabling legislation for the 86th Constitutional Amendment, 2002, came into force in 2010. It made education a fundamental right and put the onus of educating children on the State. However in 2011, 8.1 million children continued to remain out of school and there were country-wide vacancies of more than 5 lakh teachers under the SSA in 2013.

Anil Sadagopal, who was a member of the Central Advisory Board on Education when the act was framed, said that this is by design rather than by default. "After the RTE we actually see states closing down more schools than ever. I had recommended a clause against shut downs but this was not accepted. It is part of the neo liberal framework to privatise education. States neglect schools and when children finally shift to private schools, they shut the school down," he told this paper.

According to Madhav Chavan, CEO of education NGO Pratham, "The population tripled since independence yet our primary enrolment rate has reached above 96 per cent. Unfortunately, the focus was on provisions like blackboards and classrooms as policy makers thought in a linear way. There is no focus on how teachers are teaching."

As a result, Pratham's latest Annual Status of Education Report has found that a little more than a quarter of Std. 5 children can do a division and a fourth of Std. 8 children can't read. The problem persists in both private and publicly-funded schools.

In 2013, the 18th Joint Review Mission of the union government and the European Union--which also funds the programme-- found that tribal children continue to lag behind others covered by the scheme. "The unsatisfactory levels of participation and learning achievement levels of these children can be traced to the fact that their mother tongues are different from the medium of instruction, which is invariably the language of the state," the report said.

The report added, "The challenge of fully achieving the objectives of SSA cannot be achieved, and more particularly the challenge of sustaining the benefits of SSA cannot be met if the State Education Departments (dealing with school education) remain as they are."

States that have done well include Kerala, Tripura, Mizoram, Himachal Pradesh, Tamil Nadu and Rajasthan. While Kerala has a historic legacy of focusing on education, Himachal did well thanks to the relatively lesser social stratification in the state.

Tripura outshines Kerala

Last year, Tripura outranked Kerala to become the most literate state with 95.16 per cent of its residents literate. Reasons attributed to this are the state's Total Literacy Programme which reaches out to people aged 15 to 50 and the Improved Pace and Content Learning (IPCL) initiative which allows educators to customise learning material according to the needs of the target audience.

In Kerala and Mizoram, the literacy rates are 93.91 per cent and 91.58 per cent respectively. Both states have extensively synergised the efforts of government departments and civil society to reach the maximum number of people. With the effective implementation of the District Primary Education Programme, Rajasthan saw a leap of literacy rates from 38.55 per cent to 60.41 per cent between 1991 and 2001.

However, this growth stabilised and in 2011, the state's literacy rate stood at 66.11 per cent.

"Education is not an obvious priority for this government right now, but this can change if the economy turns around. For improvement, it is better to look to the states than the Centre," Massachusetts Institute of Technology Economics Professor Abhijit Banerjee told The Hindu.

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